Aluminum: An Overnight Sensation Decades in the Making

The use of aluminum has been long in coming in the auto industry. Longer, by far, than even some people in the aluminum industry had imagined.

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When Joe Hinrichs, then Ford Motor executive vice president and president of  the Americas, announced the aluminum-intensive 2015 F-150 pickup at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 13, 2014, it was an event that resonated throughout the entire auto industry like a shockwave. 

After all, the F-Series has been the best-selling truck in the U.S. for 37 years running and the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 32 straight years (in 2013 Ford reported sales of 763,402 units, and while not all of them are F-150s, you can be sure a lion’s share are).

Suddenly, it seemed, it was prime-time for aluminum. While there had been rumors for a few months leading to the official announcement, when that announcement was made, it was as though the nonferrous material had come out of nowhere.

Funny thing about that.

Tom Boney, vice president and general manager, Automotive, Novelis North America—and Novelis (novelis.com) is one of Ford’s aluminum suppliers for the F-150 project—says that there are people who went to university and studied engineering, then took jobs in the auto industry with hopes of moving aluminum into greater use in the industry. They are now retired. Boney says that since the Ford announcement, they’ve contacted him through conduits like LinkedIn. These retired engineers are quite excited. They almost want to come back to work because what they’d hoped for has finally come to fruition.

It’s been a long time coming.

Boney makes two other points that are worth keeping in mind regarding aluminum’s sudden rise to fame:

1. In his view, it’s been 40 years in coming. Speaking of the F-150, he says, “It’s a step. A big step. But it’s on a path we’ve been on for 40 years.”

2. “We thought we were going to be there in 1996. The aluminum industry thought that that was going to be our big year.”

Boney explains of the first that there has been a slow, steady, incremental growth of aluminum components through the years, primarily closure panels. Year after year, more aluminum parts. As for the second, there was intensive attention paid to aluminum back then; Ford had developed an aluminum-intensive Sable as a test-bed that seemed as though it might have had promise for production. “We’ve been a bridesmaid many, many times,” Boney says.

Audi has done extensive work with aluminum. And Jaguar—now Jaguar Land Rover—which was once owned by Ford, has made the use of aluminum a mainstay.

One of the consequences of premium vehicle manufacturers using aluminum is that it is probably considered to be a material that lends itself to low-volume use. But Todd Summe, Global Technology Director, Automotive, Novelis, points out that the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models, which are aluminum-intensive vehicles, have a production volume of some 150,000 units per year. “It’s not F-150 volume,” he says, “but not the 20,000 units that people tend to think about for an aluminum-intensive vehicle.”

There are some other aspects of aluminum that may be commonly accepted but not necessarily accurate. 

For example, consider the notion that this means that the body shop—which is steel-oriented—is going to be torn up. Boney says that’s not so. You have robots that are handling steel panels with end effectors that use magnets: replace the magnets with suction cups to handle the nonferrous materials. 

There’s no need to replace the robots. You have other robots that are doing spot welding. They can be redeployed for riveting.

Summe adds that 25 years ago, when he got into the field, it cost about 30% more for an aluminum stamping die than one for steel “because there was not a large body of knowledge.” Now, he points out that Dr. Mark White, chief engineer, Body Complete Business Unit, Jaguar Land Rover, pegs the delta at about 5%.

When I ask White about the throughput of a plant producing aluminum cars compared with steel, he said that the build in their facilities for aluminum-intensive vehicles is “as quick or quicker.” He admits that this took a lot of work, that before they launched the XJ in 2002 they’d spent about 10 years studying and developing the technology and processes. They didn’t want to, in effect, throw away their press shop, body shop and paint shop in making the materials transition.

One key factor in the fast throughput time is part integration. For example, he points out that they’re able to cast, in some instances, a half a dozen parts into one. He acknowledges that part consolidation can be done with steel, but not to the same extent as aluminum casting.

In addition to which, they apply fewer self-piercing rivets to the aluminum structure than the number of spot welds in a comparable steel car. He says that the number of rivets for the recently announced XE is on the order of 2,500, there would be twice as many spot welds required were the car to be a steel structure. And while they do use adhesives to supplement the rivets, White says that the adhesives are applied where required as determined by a computer-aided engineering optimization program.

One of the things that Jaguar Land Rover is doing and that Ford is doing with the 2015 F-150 that changes the materials cost equation is, not simply going with a hood, roof and or decklid, but of going more or less all-in (JLR uses carbon fiber composites in some applications; the F-150 has a steel frame) with aluminum. Having a few components can add cost and complexity, so Summe suggests that the higher volume production of numerous components effectively changes the cost calculations relative to other materials.

In addition to which, by having a lighter structure, there can be downsizing of other elements of the vehicle, which can also help drive down overall costs. This is particularly critical for electric vehicles, where weight reductions in the body can directly affect the weight—and cost—of the batteries.

When Hinrichs made the 2015 F-150 announcement, it seemed as though a switch had been flipped. Suddenly, aluminum was a mainstream material for automotive production.

Sounds like an overnight success. But when asked about Jaguar’s use of aluminum for building cars, he answers, “We started back in 1922. Aluminum is part of our DNA and history.”

Overnight sensations are long in coming.